BRUSSELS -- The European Union's relations with Russia appear to have returned to business as usual -- except that there's not much business in
evidence. The verdict after EU-Russia talks in Brussels is that real cooperation on most substantive issues has come to a virtual standstill.
Speaking at a news conference after the meeting on October 19, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt -- whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency -- reaffirmed the EU's interest in developing its partnership with Russia.
"There are, of course, some issues where we have different perspectives, notably the Southern Caucasus, but there is a broad range of other issues where we see both the necessity and possibility of moving forward in our relationship," Bildt said.
The EU has expended significant effort to improve its ties with Moscow since Russia's invasion of Georgia last year, despite ongoing Russian political brinkmanship.
The two sides will meet for a summit in Stockholm next month, but EU diplomats hold out little hope for substantive breakthroughs, blaming Moscow’s apparent disinterest.
Russia called off a scheduled round of talks on a new EU-Russia partnership agreement on October 16, citing "technical reasons."
Moscow has also dragged its feet over joining the World Trade Organization, an important goal for the EU, which is seeking to establish commercial relations with Russia on a clearer legal basis.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated on October 19 that Russia is unwilling to back the EU's ambitious goals for a global climate summit in Copenhagen in December. Instead he focused on regional and global security concerns, urging the EU to collaborate with Russia.
"How closely Russia and the EU cooperate on the significant issues on the global agenda will directly determine how far the EU can go toward solving the tasks facing it -- and how substantial the EU's impact will be on working out answers to the challenges and dangers that stand before us all," Lavrov said.
Lavrov repeated President Dmitry Medvedev's longstanding call for a new European "security architecture."
He also refused to guarantee that last January's natural gas shutoff to Ukraine wouldn’t be repeated. The cutoff disrupted supplies to Europe, leaving millions without heat during bitterly cold weather. Lavrov said responsibility lies with transit countries such as Ukraine.
Lavrov urged the EU to say when it would allow Russians visa-free travel to member countries. But EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said consensus on the issue within the EU is unlikely in the short or medium term.
“We [have] always said that visa-free travel is, of course, a long-term perspective,” Ferrero-Waldner said. “This was particularly mentioned [today] because we need of course also always a close mandate [to proceed with negotiations] and a close agreement of all the member states."
Several EU member states believe the issue of visa-free travel for Russians, which holds great symbolic importance for the Kremlin, represents one of the EU's best levers for dealing with Moscow.